Every so often, you come across an item in the collection that is so unusual it makes you stop and stare. This is one of those items, both for its subject and technique.
In 1888, Ogalala Lakota Chief Red Cloud and his wife, Pretty Owl, sat for an unnamed photographer. He would have been about 66 and she about 53. The two were married around 1850 and it was said that she was very jealous of other women vying for his attention and was the undisputed head of the household.
During the 1860s, Red Cloud’s band of Ogalala Lakota Sioux warriors joined with several other groups in attacks against the US Army stationed in the Powder River Basin. They attacked Fort Phil Kearny repeatedly, lured and killed Captain Fetterman at what became known as the Fetterman Massacre, and were the cause of John “Portugee” Phillips’ famous 236 mile ride to Fort Laramie for reinforcements. In fact, the entire series of battles became known as “Red Cloud’s War.” (read more about it on WyoHistory.org)
In 1868, Red Cloud participated in the treaty talks at Fort Laramie which lead to the US Army abandoning the forts, including Fort Phil Kearny, in northern Wyoming. Red Cloud went on to lead the Ogallala Lakota as chief from 1868 until his death in 1909.
The treaty also stipulated that the Lakota be confined to an Indian agency, the forerunner of the reservations. It was named in Red Cloud’s honor and moved three times before it was renamed the Pine Ridge Agency and permanently located in South Dakota.
This particular type photograph is called a cyanotype and was printed on what appears to be silk. Cyanotypes are made by treating paper with potassium ferricyanide and a ferris salt. The negative is placed directly on the prepared paper and exposed to UV light (usually sunlight), which causes the exposed portions to turn a muddy yellow. The prints are then “developed” using plain water and the yellow-green become the characteristic blue and the original color of the paper shows through in the highlights.
The process became a favorite technique for architects reproducing plans which became known as blueprints. Amateur photographers also liked the processes because it was cheap, simple, and produced a wonderfully detailed image, but the blue color made them less than ideal. Pre-treated cyanotype paper is available today in sun print or sun sensitive paper kits. (As a side note, faded blueprints and cyanotypes have a fascinating habit of regenerating to some extent when they are stored in the dark for long periods of time.)
The same process was used on fabric for this photograph, a technique which is still fairly popular with textile artists who use natural materials and found objects as well as negatives or transparencies to create their designs. Silk is a favored fabric because of its tight, even weave and smooth texture, but modern cottons are also used.